Posted 10 months ago on June 29, 2012, 7:16 p.m. EST by bensdad
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June 27, 2012: Katherine Eban FORTUNE PART 1 -- In the annals of impossible assignments, Dave Voth's ranked high. In 2009 the federal BATF promoted Voth to lead Phoenix Group VII, tasked with stopping guns from being trafficked into Mexico's vicious drug war.
The Mexican government has estimated that 2,000 weapons are smuggled daily from the U.S. into Mexico. No federal statute outlaws firearms trafficking, so agents must build cases using a patchwork of often toothless laws. For years, due to Republican politics, the bureau has gone without permanent leadership, neutered in its fight for funding and authority. The NRA has so successfully opposed a comprehensive electronic database of gun sales that the ATF's congressional appropriation explicitly prohibits establishing one.
The Phoenix area is home to 853 federally licensed firearms dealers. Billboards advertise volume discounts for multiple purchases. There are no waiting periods and no need for permits, and buyers are allowed to resell the guns. The agents faced numerous obstacles in what they dubbed the Fast and Furious case. Their greatest difficulty by far, however, was convincing prosecutors that they had sufficient grounds to seize guns and arrest straw purchasers. By June 2010 the agents had sent the U.S. Attorney's office a list of 31 suspects they wanted to arrest, with 46 pages outlining their illegal acts. But for the next seven months prosecutors did not indict a single suspect.
On Dec. 14, 2010, In a remote stretch of Peck Canyon, Ariz., Mexican bandits attacked an elite Patrol unit and killed agent Brian Terry & left behind two semiautomatic rifles that had been purchased 11 months earlier at a Phoenix-area gun store by a Fast and Furious suspect. Ten weeks later, an ATF agent named John Dodson, whom Voth had supervised charged that his supervisors had intentionally allowed American firearms to be trafficked—a tactic known as "walking guns"—to Mexican drug cartels. Dodson claimed that supervisors repeatedly ordered him not to seize weapons because they wanted to track the guns into the hands of criminal ringleaders. The program showed internal e-mails from Voth, which purportedly revealed agents locked in a dispute over the deadly strategy. The story has become a fixture on Fox News and has prompted repeated congressional hearings—with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifying multiple times & 7000 pages turned over. They have refused to interview any Bush administration officials who started the program.
On June 20, in a day of political brinkmanship, Issa's committee voted along party lines, 23 to 17, to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for allegedly failing to turn over certain subpoenaed documents, which the Justice Department contended could not be released because they related to ongoing criminal investigations and President Obama asserted executive privilege to block the release of the documents. ATF and Justice Department officials have agreed that the ATF purposefully chose not to interdict guns it lawfully could have seized. Holder testified in December that "the use of this misguided tactic is inexcusable, and it must never happen again."
Issa and others charge that the ATF intentionally allowed guns to walk as an operational tactic.
But five law-enforcement agents directly involved in Fast and Furious tell Fortune that the ATF had no such tactic.
They say they seized weapons whenever they could but were hamstrung by prosecutors and weak laws, which stymied them at every turn.
Indeed, a six-month Fortune investigation reveals that the public case alleging that Voth and his colleagues walked guns is replete with distortions, errors, partial truths, and even some outright lies. Fortune reviewed more than 2,000 pages of confidential ATF documents and interviewed 39 people, including seven law-enforcement agents with direct knowledge of the case.
After the murder of agent Terry, Dodson made complaints that were then amplified by right-wing bloggers. Rep. Issa and other politicians then seized those elements to score points against the Obama administration.
"Republican senators are whipping up the country into a psychotic frenzy with these reports that are patently false," says Linda Wallace, a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service's criminal investigation unit
who was assigned to the Fast and Furious team (and recently retired from the IRS). A self-described gun-rights supporter, Wallace has not been criticized by Issa's committee.
The ATF's accusers seem untroubled by evidence that the policy they have pilloried didn't actually exist.
continuation: FORTUNE – PART 2